4 Ways to Clean Your House without Polluting Your Air

A new study reveals high levels of air pollutants in household cleaning products, but you can clean just as well with nontoxic alternatives.

November 11, 2009

The ingredient lists on some cleaning products are so misleading, you'd be better off without them.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Cleaning-product manufacturers have long benefited from government protections that exempt them from publishing ingredients lists on their labels, under the logic that their formulations are "trade secrets," which is why many of those labels list innocuous-sounding components like "odor eliminator" or "fragrance." As a result, it's hard to know what's really in the cleansers you use—and what those secret ingredients could be doing to the air you breathe in your home.


The nonprofit advocacy Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested 21 cleaners used in schools, including a few that are also sold for household use. They sent products used in 13 California school districts to an air-quality lab, where levels of air pollutants were checked after the products were used according to instructions. Among the 21 tested cleaners were four household cleaning products that you may have underneath your kitchen sink.

Here are the test results for those four cleaners, and some alternative cleaning strategies that will leave you with clean indoor air instead of a hazy fog of pollutants:

#1: Febreze Air Effects (Hawaiian Aloha)

Ingredients listed on the bottle: Odor eliminator, water, fragrance, nonflammable natural propellant, quality-control ingredients.

What EWG found: 89 air contaminants, including ethyl acetate (toxic to the brain and nervous system), acetaldehyde (a known respiratory irritant and possible human carcinogen), and butylated hydroxytoluene (a preservative that's toxic to the immune system and suspected of interfering with hormones). "We were very concerned about this, given the large number of air contaminants detected, many of which haven't been tested and we don't know what they do to us," says Rebecca Sutton, PhD, an environmental chemist and senior scientist at EWG, who authored the report.

What to do about it: Fix the source of the odor, rather than masking it with a cloud of hormone-disrupting chemicals that may or may not bear any resemblance to a Hawaiian aloha. Household air could be musty because of a leaky pipe, and that stench in the closet could be sweaty gym shoes. To get rid of tough kitchen odors, boil a pot of water with some orange peels, cloves, and cinnamon sticks and leave it simmering on the stove for a while (it could freshen up your whole ground floor). Or try one of these autumn air-freshener ideas from Care2.com.

#2: Comet Disinfectant Powder Cleanser (Regular)

Ingredients listed on the bottle: Active Ingredient: Sodium dichloro-s-triazinetrione dihydrate 1.2 percent Other ingredients 98.8 percent

What EWG found: 146 air contaminants, including seven chemicals linked to cancer, two chemicals linked to reproductive damage, and two chemicals that interfere with hormones. Three of the chemicals EWG detected—formaldehyde, toluene, and benzene—are components of gasoline. The group also detected chloroform, which was once used as an anesthetic for surgery and can cause dizziness during regular use of cleaning products that contain it. "This was a big surprise," says Sutton. "I didn't even want to test a powdered cleanser because I didn't expect to see this many chemicals coming off the product." While most of the cancer-causing chemicals they detected would pose a hazard only when the powder was wet, one cancer-causer, quartz, could pose a threat if inhaled in powder form, she notes.

What to do about it: Comet is essentially an abrasive powder that can be replaced with baking soda or borax. Simply mix either powder with enough water to make a thick paste, and apply it to the surface with a sponge or scouring pad. For a disinfecting boost, spray your surface with hydrogen peroxide followed by vinegar; the combo kills a whole host of germs. If cleaning up after a swine flu outbreak, however, you may need a more potent disinfectant.

#3: Pine-Sol Brand Cleaner (Original)

Ingredients listed on the bottle: Active Ingredient: Pine Oil 8.7 percent Other Ingredients: Includes Detergents and other cleaning agents. Contains biodegradable cleaning agents.

What EWG found:18 air contaminants were detected in Pine Sol, the most hazardous of which was formaldehyde, a known carcinogen and asthma trigger. The reason the cleaner’s formaldehyde levels were so high, says Sutton, is that pine oil, even though it's natural, contains chemicals called terpenes, which react with ground-level ozone to form formaldehyde.

What to do about it: EWG suggests swapping out your regular mop with a microfiber mop that requires nothing more than water to clean the floor. Our Nickel Pincher Jean Nick has tips for outfitting those handy spray mops, which use hazardous chemicals, with a nontoxic floor cleaner instead.

#4: Simple Green Concentrated Cleaner/Degreaser/Deodorizer

Ingredients listed on the bottle: No ingredients were disclosed on the label.

What EWG found: 93 air contaminants, including 2-butoxyethanol (the main ingredient in Simple Green), which can cause severe respiratory irritation and has been dubbed a possible carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. Formaldehyde and acetaldehyde were also detected, as was propylene glycol, a common ingredient in cleaners as well as cosmetics, which can damage your respiratory system if inhaled. Another problem with this cleaner, says Sutton, is greenwashing. "The 'nontoxic' label is very misleading, considering that the EPA considers its main ingredient a carcinogen," Sutton says. She also notes that the label directions say that, for most uses, the cleaner should be diluted before use, even though the product is sold in a ready-to-use spray bottle.

What to do about it: Simple Green is an all-purpose cleaner; DIY recipes for all-use cleansers made with lemon juice, vinegar, or hydrogen peroxide are plentiful. Use the aforementioned baking soda or borax paste against tough grease (neither powder will scratch surfaces the way conventional scrubbing powders do), or use the Nickel Pincher's nontoxic Almost Everything Cleaner instead.

If you still have any of these cleaners in your house, Sutton says that it's probably OK if you continue using them until they're gone, and then replace them with healthier alternatives. "Unless a person feels like he or she is getting an asthma reaction while using them," she cautions. "If people are concerned, we recommend taking the product to a local hazardous waste site." Whatever you do, don't pour them down the drain. The chemicals pass through the wastewater system and harm the ecosystems of local waterways (and perhaps end up in your drinking water).